Saturday, June 25, 2011

'Law Abiding Citizen' is fun in a pulp fiction way

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerald Butler, Colm Meany, Bruce McGill, and Leslie Bibb
Director: F. Gary Gray
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Ten years after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered, a man (Butler) embarks on a flashy killing spree to extract vengeance not only on the killers, but also on the ambitious district attorney who let his concern over conviction rates supersede the pursuit of justice (Foxx) and on the entire court system. However, even after he has been caught and put in isolation in a maximum security prison, the murders continue in ever-more brutal and elaborate ways.

"Law Abiding Citizen" has its starting point in a world that feels like it could be the one just outside your window and across town where the lawyers hang out. The place where movies like "Runaway Jury", "The Star Chamber" and "Presumed Innocent" takes place. As the film progresses, its world evolves into that inhabited by the characters of Liam Neeson and Jean Claude Van Damme movies. As the film is making its transition from a courtroom-dramaesque movie into a full-blown, pulp fiction-flavored thriller with a mysterious, unstoppable killer bent on taking out the city's leading citizens, it feels a bit shaky and it becomes hard to suspend one's disbelief, but once you're in the world of remote control murders, the film is fun again.

An interesting aspect of the film is that the character we're supposed to be sympathetic toward really isn't such a nice guy. Much of the mayhem in the film comes about because he was more concerned about his career prospects as advancing as a prosecutor than seeing justice done for the brutal rape and murder of a man's wife and little daughter. Jamie Foxx's character clearly accepted a plea bargain for one of the killer/rapists primarily because he was concerned first and foremost about his conviction rate. It's hard to like this character within the context of the movie... especially when he constantly comes across as a sanctimonious hypocrite without much to balance that out. Similarly, the other character for whom we might be able to feel some sympathy toward. the widower father who feels the system has let him down, is psychopathic terrorist who is ultimately far worse than the scum who took away his family. When it comes right down to it, this is a film where our sympathies lie with the poor saps getting mowed down as a result of what these two men do. That is another reason the film feels unstable and directionless in the middle, because without a clear set of genre conventions to guide our expectations, and without a main character to root for and/or hate more than the opposing force arrayed against him, one can't help but feel there might be better ways to spend your time.

Ultimately, once the film settles into its cartoonish universe of self-centered prosecutors (who somehow still manage to not neglect their families much) and vigilante terrorists with not only the desire but also the means and skill to threaten the political and judicial class of a major American city, it turns out to be fun ride, with a far-fetched mystery plot to work out as it progresses.

Nothing here is terribly brilliant writing-, directing- or cinematography-wise, the most engaging performances are actually provided by the supporting cast--if this wasn't the case, perhaps I would have felt more for the main characters than I did--and the ending will only work for you if you were able to follow the movie from a grounded world to one of criminal masterminds and super spies. Otherwise, you will probably have something of a sour taste in your mouth as the end credits start to roll, and you will find yourself wondering if anyone knew what point they were trying to make with this movie.

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